Simon of Cyrene Carried the Cross
Ponsonby Baptist Church, Sunday 28 February and Cityside Baptist, Sunday 6 March 2016
Reading: Mark 15:21-22; Matthew 27:32; Luke 23:26
An Unexpected Role
There was a doodle poll to select dates for this sermon. And I thought I had chosen dates at the end of March when I wasn’t distracted by student orientation, the interfaith forum and administrative work. Then this week I am at the James plays. So I was taken by surprise when I was put in the spot to talk to you today.
And Simon too was taken by surprise. But it proved to be the most important event in his life. He and the church remembered for it is cited in three gospels. In Mark 15 we read not only his names but the names of his two sons, Alexander and Rufus. This suggests that the people were known in the church. It seems likely that his son is the Rufus mentioned in the list of names in Romans 16:13.
The Man from Cyrene
Simon had come from a long way. Cyrene may mean nothing to you but I it’s place in classical history is interesting.
Cyrene or more correctly Kyrene [now Tripoli] is an inland city, on a plateau 10 miles inland fertile soil for grain, wool, olives, vegetables, herbs and dates. The ancients said that "here the sky leaks" (Herodotus 4:156). It was founded 630 BC as a Greek colony, by Battus a Lycomedian and his clan from the island of Thera. He brought a colony and his descendants ruled the island until 440 BCE then it was a republic until under Alexander in 331 BCE and them Ptolemy I in 322. The city came under Ptolemaic domination just after Alexander the Great. See Herodotus 4:150, 153, 156-159. It was one of the Pentapolis [the five cities]. Cyrene was a perfect location for commerce, and it had many notable citizens, including Callimachus the poet (310-240), Carneacles of the Athens New Academy, Eratosthenes the mathematician who measured circumference of the earth to within 50 miles). Amasis II of Egypt married a Greek woman from there (see Herodotus 2.181; 4:150-58). Ptolemy III incorporated it into Egypt in 231 BC. Apion, the last of the Ptolemies willed it to Rome in 96 BCE. It was united with Crete as a senatorial province. See Josephus Contra Apion.
There were very large Jewish numbers in the city. According to Josephus, Ptolemy Soter sent 100,000 Jews there. They must have acclimatised and spoke the local language for Acts 6.9 talks about a Cyrenian synagogue in Jerusalem. The Jews were a very wealthy community. Thus says Josephus Contra. Apion 2.4; Antiquities. 14.114). He cites Strabo:
"There were four classes of men among those of Cyrene; that of citizens, that of husbandmen, the third of strangers, and the fourth of Jews. Now these Jews are already gotten into all cities; and it is hard to find a place in the habitable earth that hath not admitted this tribe of men, and is not possessed by them; and it hath come to pass that Egypt and Cyrene, as having the same governors, and a great number of other nations, imitate their way of living, and maintain great bodies of these Jews in a peculiar manner, and grow up to greater prosperity with them, and make use of the same laws with that nation also. ... They also removed into Cyrene, because that this land adjoined to the government of Egypt, as well as does Judea, or rather was formerly under the same government."
Apparently Sciarii came to Kyrene to escape risks in Judea. There was a revolt here by Jews in 115-116 CE Dio Cassius 68:32. Hadrian rebuilt it. Climate changes, earthquakes. Simon was a very typical members, making the long trip back to Jerusalem so that he could worship sometimes in the temple, and presumably that was what he was doing that day when he bumped into Jesus.
Inevitably Christianity was planted there very early. Later church included Synesius. But then it was invaded in the 7th century (642 CE) as the Arabs swept inspired by Islam from Arabia to Spain.
But in the days of the early church, this was a strong centre of foreign Jews as was Alexandria and Rome. So at Pentecost a group of Jews from there is mentioned in Acts 2:10, and Acts 11:20 shows that Christians from Cyrene were among the Christians began to share with the Greeks. There is a Lucius of Cyrene in Acts 13:1 who is one of the leaders of the church now in Antioch with its mixed race character. And it seems as though this Simon of Cyrene therefore was one of the very first members of a significant Christian community.
The Coercive Empire
Simon of Cyrene seems to have come to Jerusalem to attend the Passover ceremonies, and so he was entering the gate into the city when he was dragooned into carrying the cross. Unlike the Greek states, the Roman Empire was brutal and vicious in establishing its presence. It showed its iron fist regularly in order to maintain control. Treating foreign visitors as forced labour was very typical. Soldiers were inadequately paid and supported, and in effect they were obliged to demand support from members of the community. Moreover most people had very few rights. Citizens, certainly could claim some exemptions, but sometimes these rights got overlooked as citizenship was cheated.
The iron empire thus maintained its existence for a long time, and while there were some political concessions, but every now and then every people, and especially the Jews confronted this harsh regime.
The Meaning of Crucifixion
It is such an empire that requires Crucifixion as a bloody warning to its enemies. And thus the ugly scene that we recall today is the product of a state which took few prisoners. They saw nothing to again with in Jesus. He was worthless Jewish trash.
It was for Jews peculiarly abhorrent because it symbolised being cursed by God. So it is astonishing that this cross became the Christian symbol. It was not just an accident that happened to the Messiah. It lay in the purposes of God. It is the character of that death which turned Jews into Christians. It is ugly, it is incompatible with Jewish values, it is revolting, but Christians could only follow Jesus if they accepted that it was God's purpose for Jesus. This powerful symbol of our faith. Simon must have discovered it that day, as the victim went willingly to the altar. Simon was attracted to Jesus at what seems the worst of times, but it was more than that.
Here at this point Christianity became what Judaism was not, a salvation religion. The cross was the place of atonement. Christians have often debated how the cross really does save us. You may believe a precise doctrine of substitution are atonement or you may find it crude. But underneath Christianity lies a doctrine that this death was atonement, in the profound sense that he is in our place and for us even if you wonder how to put it together. For at the cross we most see Jesus and we most see God’s love for us.
The Ethic of the Cross
The crucifixion needs to be understood as more than doctrine, though. Surely it is also an ethic and a way of life, which should be a principle for us. Matthew 5:41 addresses the issue of impressment and urges Christians to go the extra mile. What an astonishing demand this is. We are urged to a faithful belief, to a courageous love, not taking offence. Simon followed Jesus carrying the cross, and ends up as disciples.
“But whether persecuted as Christians or for other reasons, we must respond with love and kindness.” This is a basic human responsibility, which Simon showed before he came to faith. We need to become people of generosity and love who see the needs of others and offer our shoulder to carry the burden, to hold up the faltering. It is so key to see the example her of Jesus as the one who needs to be supported, who takes from whoever offers help.
Meekness which is not weakness. John Howard Yoder long ago urged us to creative non-resistance, which can be radical and transformative.
Take up your cross
Jesus also urged us to take up our cross. And yet the verses we read don’t see quite adequate. After all Simon did not take up his own cross he took up the cross of Jesus. And he did not do so as an act of discipleship, he did it because he was threatened to do so.
Nevertheless it was at that point that he met Jesus, and clearly the experience was transformative for him and for his family. Here are some aspects of this that we need to think about:
The church is most effective when it is suffering pressure and persecution: Here is a principle that we see again and again. The massive decline in the church is partly because the church in New Zealand is asleep. Not that we should seek for or welcome persecution, but there is a power that comes from pain, more than from miracles and the spectacular or well organised.
The journey that starts with toughness is one that will last. We should of course, not want people to experience too much grimness in their lives. But in the end suffering and struggle are not disastrous experiences, they mature, they give depth. This surely lies at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, but it also lies at the heart of the experience of his disciples.
Contact with Jesus touches and transforms when almost nothing else does. I think again that this is an important principle. People want to see Jesus, and Jesus does reveal himself to people in the most astonishing an unexpected ways. We in the jaundiced, supercilious western world need to be reminded of this.
You will see that I think we have good reason to be worried about the state of Christianity today. But I tend to think that God is at work when weakness and non-resistance expresses the life and the death of Jesus before our world. I pray for us all the courage to walk this path.